Hidden treasures Paintings, drawings and sculptures by great French masters


Works that have been rediscovered, newly attributed or have not been seen on the market are a feature of the upcoming Christie’s Paris auction

“France is like a marvelous attic,” says Pierre Etienne, international director of the Old Masters and 19th Century department at Christie’s. “It’s a place where you find objects forgotten by the history of art that have remained in family collections for generations.” The dig was worth it, as several rediscovered old masters will figure in the Old Masters: Drawing, Painting, Sculpture auction at Christie’s Paris on May 18.

Some of these works, such as three drawings by Martin Fréminet (1567-1619), have only recently been attributed. Others, including two paintings by Jacques-André-Joseph Aved (1702-66), appeared on the market for the first time.

Among more than 250 lots are paintings by major artists such as Théodore Géricault, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Nicolas de Largillière. There are also drawings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, as well as a selection of medieval sculptures from the Marquet de Vasselot Collection.

A touch of spice will be provided by French-Mexican interior designer and architect Hugo Toro, who will present several of his designs alongside a selection of old masters. Toro will also present Amenecer, a series of limited edition furniture that will be presented for the first time.

The following lots are among the most remarkable works in the auction.

The Drawer, a small portrait of a young girl drawing, has remained in Aved’s family since he painted it in the 18th century. “It is an absolutely delightful work. Aved finds beauty in a suspended moment that doesn’t usually draw attention to itself,” says Etienne.

Childhood allegories were popular among French portrait painters in the 18th century, and Etienne sees the influence of Aved’s close friend Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in The Drawer: “It’s as if Aved started painting like Chardin, who had a marvelous way of representing the innocence of childhood.”

Aved’s portrait of Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Mehemet Said Pasha is also a family heirloom that comes to market for the first time. Etienne dates it to around 1750. “It’s another fantastic work, and it’s in very good condition because it’s never been moved,” he says.

Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) made a name for himself in the 18th century as a portrait painter of Marie-Antoinette. Most of her other patrons were also women, “so this portrait of a man was quite rare for her,” says Etienne. “The Count of Vaudreuil was an important figure in 18th century France. He was also important in the life of Vigée Le Brun as he was her patron and is considered by many to be her lover.

The last time the painting appeared at auction was in the 19th century. Etienne says it is now sold by the descendants of the Comte de Vaudreuil. There is another version of the 1784 painting in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In this painting, Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746) moves away from the classic portraits of the French royal family for which he was best known. “His work here is more fiery and nervous”, explains Etienne. “Largillière handles the brush more freely in his religious paintings than in his very accomplished portraits.

The painting, which depicts a tormented Saint Bartholomew, was only attributed to Largillière in 2003 after French art historian Dominique Brême recognized it as one of eight apostle paintings that Largillière made to decorate his Parisian apartment on rue Geoffroy-l’Angevin. The French writer and art lover Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville (1680-1765) had left a description of the Largillière house and an inventory of his estate.

The painting takes up several themes dear to Géricault (1791-1824), such as the romantic representation of horses and scenes of military life. The artist’s interest in the representation of contemporary subjects was quite innovative at the beginning of the 19th century.

Etienne believes the work was painted shortly after Géricault’s first major work The charging hunter of 1812. “It is one of a fairly rare series of lancers which at first glance may appear quasi-official, but you can also see that it has been painted quite loosely with a light touch,” he says. The provenance of the painting is particularly notable for being originally part of the private collection of the artist Eugène Delacroix.

Gherardo Starnina (1354-1413) was part of the sophisticated Florence school that took artistic sophistication to new heights after the Middle Ages. Starnina’s elegant touch is shown in her depiction of the characters. “The panel is in excellent condition, with colors that remain very vivid,” says Etienne. “It’s a fragment, but that doesn’t take away from its incredible liveliness.”

Fréminet (1567-1619) was one of the leading artists of the “second school of Fontainebleau” at the end of the 16th century. These three studies for the Chapel of the Trinity at the Château de Fontainebleau were probably completed between 1603 and 1608. “The main design, with the allegorical figure of Faith inserted in a medallion, was for the design of the ceiling”, says Hélène Rihal , director of the Old and 19th century drawing department at Christie’s France.

The drawings, which illustrate the finesse of Fréminet’s graphic style, appear for the first time on the market after being authenticated by the French art historian Antonin Liatard. “They were rediscovered on the back of an 18th century prints album a few months ago,” Rihal explains. “It was quite extraordinary because they had no connection to anything else on the album.”

A pyxis is a liturgical box of Christian origin used to keep hosts. This one was made in Limoges in the second half of the 13th century. “It is very rare for the pyxis to be positioned on the Virgin’s lap,” explains Alexandre Mordret-Isambert, associate specialist in ancient European sculpture at Christie’s France. ‘The lid has a handle in the shape of a dove.’

To Mordret-Isambert’s knowledge, there is only one similar one, which was part of the Edme-Antoine Durand collection. “But unlike this one, it no longer has a lid,” says Mordret-Isambert.

The last time this pyxis was seen in public was at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. It was exhibited by its owner Victor Martin Le Roy, who bequeathed the pyxis to his daughter, wife of curator Jean-Joseph Marquet de Vasselot. Several objects from the Marquet de Vasselot collection are today in the Louvre and other museums, but the pyxis has always remained in the family.


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